Thursday, March 17, 2011

Sorry, Japan...

Okay, okay, I couldn't help myself. I went a little overboard in the previous post and made light of the situation in Japan. Now, even I have to admit that it was gratuitous, in extremely poor taste, and not exactly funny unless you're off your meds.

I (Pearl) harbor no ill-will towards the Japanese people. In fact...wait for it...some of my best friends were Japanese (oh no you didn't!). Well, that's not exactly true. I don't have all that many Japanese friends, just many Japanese acquaintances.

A long time ago, a young Lunatic was hired to work for one of the largest corporations on Planet Earth, a Japanese brokerage company which at that time was involved in one of those quixotic projects which the cash-rich Japanese of the early1990's eagerly pursued. Basically, we were experimenting with the second-generation of automated securities trading systems back then, and the reason why the company had crossed the vast Pacific and the American Hinterland to arrive upon the sunny shores of Staten Island, was to set up the Nomura Research Institute wherein this experimentation would take place. Your's Truly -- all of about 22 or 23 at the time, and full of piss-and-vinegar -- was hired to run those experimental systems.

The purpose of spending (wasting, really) a shitload of money to build a showpiece data center in Staten Island was an abject lesson in how some Japanese of the time thought. The Powers That Were had discovered that American securities firms were engaged in about 90% of the electronic trading on Japanese stock exchanges, but that Japanese companies did almost none on American exchanges. This was a national insult that could not go unavenged! Nomura was going to spend like a drunken sailor on shore leave to erase this national stain of disgrace, and at the same time show those big-nosed, smelly gaijin (barbarians) that the Japanese Way was the bestest way EVAH!

No matter how much it cost, nor how paltry the results.

Now, the story of exactly HOW I got hired is both funny, and all-too-inherently Japanese.

See, I'm an Italian boy. Specifically, Sicilian on my father's side, and Neapolitan and Calabrese on my mother's. I have a last name which sounds Japanese, if only because it ends with an 'O'. So, when all these Japanese dudes looking for technicians to fill their brand-spankin' new computer research facility saw my resume, they were intrigued by my surname...

...And had assumed that I, naturally, must have been Japanese.

So, I was basically hired, sight unseen.

When I walked into that building for the first time for what I was told was a mere formality (a for-show interview) imagine the shock and dismay when it was discovered that, alas, I was not Japanese at all. I had already been told that I had the job, and now to take it back would have been a major problem; the Japanese don't like to make mistakes (who does?) and making a boner like this one involves a great deal of shame and embarrassment (Japanese businessmen have killed themselves for lesser offenses), and besides, this was the 90's, and Japan was supposed to be taking over the world with it's battalions of highly-disciplined-and-sharp-as-tacks super-duper managerial robots. 60Minutes and the New York Times said so, you see.

So now I couldn't be un-hired without somoene having to disembowel himself, and so I spent the next 18 months working like a galley slave with a bunch of Japanese managers just waiting for the moment when I finally stepped on the weasel so that they could fire my Italian ass and erase the memory of their mind-boggingly-stupid error. Eventually, because I was young, stupid, and not at all mature (I think I'm still two of those things) I gave them one; I have a terrible habit of not caring about time. I would be late for my own funeral, you know. I think I was pretty much late for work on a daily basis in those days, and it was only the quality of my work that kept me there that long. Just as soon as the lateness thing got to be too much, they sent me to the unemployment line.

A month or two later, I found myself working for another Japanese company which was right across the street from the old one, and I stayed there for four years before the stupidity of the whole thing got to be too much. These were the days of outsourcing and cost-management-as-corporate-lifestyle, and so when my department -- which had started out with 10 people -- was reduced to one --Me -- and I was working 70 hours a week, it was time to move on.

But I did meet an awful lot of Japanese in those days, and found the majority of them to be pretty good folks, if strange. That weird factor was mostly due to cultural differences, but once you got used to it, it wasn't that bad. I made some pretty good friends during that time, like the guy who was so in love with American cars that when he shipped back to Japan, he had his vintage Thunderbird and Cougar shipped with him. He used to send us pictures of himself and a bevvy of Japanese cuties in those cars -- which sat in his garage (at enormous expense) because of high gasoline prices, every few months. Thats how he'd get laid: Hey Ladies,I have a set of classic American cars...Wanna ride with the top down?

The Japanese men were strange birds. In the office, they were all work and didn't know you from a hole in the wall. After hours, they were stalwart drinking and softball buddies, and wanted you to introduce them to American girls, about whom they spoke in the crudest of ways (but who am I to judge? I probably talked the same way about the Japanese girls). The Japanese ladies were everything you'd expect; quiet, shy, demure...until they had spent a year stateside in the example and tutelage of the American women, who ruined them.

Ah, I remember a couple of Japanese lasses quite fondly before they discovered Oprah...

Anyways, I found that many of the myths we had been told about the Japanese were simply not true. The first myth to get busted was the stereotype of the hard-working dude who would spend 20 hours a day in the office. From what I saw, those who did only did so because they were waiting for phone calls from Tokyo. They didn't have any real work to do (that was left to the Roundeyes). I remember one man (a senior executive) who's only task seemed to be to sit silently at his desk and chain-smoke (yes, you could smoke indoors in an office in those days!), and thumb through his impressive collection of Japanese porn.

The second lost Maxim of Japanese Invincibility in Business was that the Japanese were smarter than we Americans, which is why they were about to conquer the planet economically. This was patently untrue. I did meet a number of highly-intelligent people, but the majority were not the best and the brightest examples. Once you figured out the Japanese style of business, it didn't take long to figure out why:

If you're a manager in Japan, and you're told that you must send one of your people to America for three-to-five years, you don't send your right-hand man. You grab Fuck-Up San, and give him a raise, a new, bullshit title, and a plane ticket to the Land of Ten Thousand Golf Courses. This made everyone happy: the manager kept his best people, the company had a warm body who could speak Japanese to watch things and send faxes in the U.S., and Fuck-Up San was as happy as a pig in shit, driving his Cadillac, eating steak, and playing all the golf and watching all the Playboy Channel he could manage.

But I did form some really good friendships with a number of my Japanese colleagues during that time. Most of them were really just ordinary people once you got them out of the office, and they could party like there was no tomorrow. The shame of it all is that I would have stayed at that job, probably, if it hadn't had been for the American Manager placed over me; the douchebag that had the audacity to tell me that, even though I had worked 600+ hours of overtime that last year, he couldn't give me a raise without breaking his budget, and then when the company had announced that it was paying it's first-ever bonus (because it had made it's first-ever profit), tried to squash my bonus because I had handed in my two-weeks notice just three days before.

Yeah,I never figured that one out, either.

The President of the Company wanted to thank me for my efforts (that 600+ hours had resulted in a very happy customer, and a huge contract for the company), and when he had found out that not only was I not aware that I would be paid a bonus, but that my American boss had conspired to keep it from me, he went ballistic. So far as he was concerned, I had earned that money, even if I was leaving. It was only fair, he said.

And that is my most vivid memory of the Japanese that I have: It was fair. Even when I was fired from my first Jap Job, it was, in retrospect, only fair. Years later I would come to remember those days rather fondly, not just because of the people I had met and things I learned, but because I finally came to understand the Japanese Way; everyone got a square deal, provided they earned it. That's a far cry from the way American business is often conducted.

So now we come to the point of this little reminiscence. I used to laugh at some Japanese customs and ways because, as a Westerner, they didn't make any sense to me. It's only years later with images of a country ravaged by earthquake, tsunami and the threat of nuclear meltdown that I began to think back to those days when I worked like a sleddog, and had a man whom I had seen every day for four years, but had never spoken to, tell me in broken Engrish that his greatest concern was that his corporation lived up to it's responsibility to ensure that I was treated fairly and with respect at the end of it all.

I've collected all the spare clothing in the house this morning, especially two winter coats that I no longer wear, and which are still in good condition. The whole thing is being bundled up and delivered to the Red Cross this afternoon. There's folks in Japan who have lost everything, and if the earthquakes and tsunami and runaway reactors weren't bad enough, there's snow on the ground, and a great many people have lost everything they own. They need blankets and warm clothes, and I have closets-full.

And if there's any justice in this world, one of those coats will go to the man who gave me respect and courtesy -- at least someone very much like him --in his hour of need. I return the dignity he gave me with a small gift of a warm coat, a couple of sweaters, and some old-but-servicable shoes. It's not much in the grand scheme of things, sure, but I think at this time it would mean more to someone who needs it than all the money in the world.

Please, if you can manage it, head on over to the Red Cross and make a donation for Japanese Earthquake/Tsunami relief. They may be weird to us, but the Japanese are a good, kind and decent people who could use our help, but who will never ask for it. Don't be a douche; stick a crowbar in your wallet or empty your attic of anything useful, and send it to them.

1 comment:

gene said...

Well said, Matt. My impressions of the Japanese are the same. A quietly proud people, who desperately need help.